Code changes for functionality and accessibility

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By Dominic Esposito, P.Eng.
People with disabilities encounter accessibility challenges on a daily basis. Often there are unintended barriers because of how the features are designed and constructed. However, knowledge on accessibility-related issues is growing rapidly to better serve Canadians with various disabilities.

The National Building Code of Canada’s (NBC’s) 2015 edition was amended with low- and no-cost impact requirements, enhancing the usability and functionality of the built environment for all occupants without creating additional financial burdens for owners. (This article is based on Codes Canada seminars provided by the National Research Council Canada [NRC] introducing the changes to National Building Code of Canada [NBC] 2015 as well as a policy paper on accessibility in buildings developed for the Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes [CCBFC] by NRC staff. For additional information, visit

Many of the changes to NBC 2015 appear to be minimal but their impacts are significant when it comes to an occupant’s ability to independently move through a building.

Leading to changes
Codes Canada publications (formerly known as the National Model Construction Codes)—including NBC—are model documents only. (Visit NRC’s Codes Canada website at They must be adopted by an authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) to come into effect as the Constitution gives the 10 provinces and three territories jurisdiction over construction. In several cases, Codes Canada publications are amended and/or supplemented to suit regional needs, and then published as provincial/territorial codes.

In January 2012, a task group (TG) on accessibility was established with a mandate to review current code requirements for interior access routes, doors, entrances, ramps, stairs, universal washrooms, washrooms, bathtubs, showers, and drinking fountains. The group analyzed and assessed more than 400 items and came up with the several observations, including:

  • only 25 per cent of NBC requirements on accessibility are up-to-date compared to provincial codes and international standards; and
  • 65 per cent of items that could improve accessibility in buildings (for people who use wheelchairs and those with mobility, visual, and dexterity/strength impairments) will have no- or low-cost implications.

The TG recognized the costs associated with enhancing building accessibility is an important criterion in deciding the feasibility of making any changes to NBC. Therefore, it categorized all potential technical changes related to accessibility as no-, low-, medium-, or high-cost.

National Building Code of Canada (NBC) 2015 changes to device controls, such as light switches and fire alarm manual stations, make them more useable by all people.
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Changes to NBC
In order to address the gap in accessibility requirements, a set of changes with no or low cost were introduced. The accessibility requirements in NBC are located in Section 3.8., “Accessibility,” of Division B. They have now been reorganized. Previously, design requirements were sometimes contained alongside application requirements. NBC has been clarified by the reorganization so one Subsection is now dedicated to application (i.e. Subsection 3.8.2.) while another one—Subsection 3.8.3—contains solely design requirements.

Another enhancement is NBC users now have the option to use the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) B651, Accessible Design for the Built Environment, as design requirements in lieu of those contained in NBC. As an internationally well-respected Canadian standard, CSA offers a highly credible source for accessibility requirements. This alternative eliminates compliance difficulties for designers, owners, and officials as some buildings in Canada are required to comply with both NBC and CSA B651. However, the option to use CSA B651 is limited to specific applications. Work is ongoing to harmonize NBC provisions with those in the CSA standard, and it is anticipated NBC will reference CSA B651 for design requirements and keep application requirements within the Code.

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